A team of University of Colorado Boulder researchers has discovered a chemical compound that can break through the cell membrane and potentially fight bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
It’s something scientists have been working on for years, but COVID-19 has emphasized the need for a solution. The coronavirus weakens immune systems, sometimes causing people to die from what would typically be considered treatable secondary bacteria infections.
“We, and others, have been trying to find new antibiotics for years now, but COVID has sort of highlighted how important it is,” said Dr. Corrie Detweiler, a molecular cellular and development biology professor at CU Boulder.
“It is a bacterial infection that shouldn’t harm a person. (But) you can’t save those people, and that’s obviously not our preference,” she said.
Detweiler is leading the team of researchers on work that began several years ago and was published earlier this month. The group used chemical genetics to identify a small molecule called JD1 that kills salmonella residing within macrophages, or specialized cells involved in the detection and destruction of bacteria. Although JD1 is not typically considered antibacterial, it inhibits growth and diminishes the bacteria’s ability to survive in “broth condition,” which is a liquid nutrient typically used to grow bacteria.
The compound targets Gram negative bacteria, or those with a double membrane that makes the bacteria resistant to treatment from antibiotics. It works with a person’s innate immune response to push past the barriers.
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Gram stain test was developed in the 1800s by Hans Christian Gram. It is a method for classifying different types of bacteria by using a chemical stain that reveals whether the stain has an effect on the bacteria’s protective cell wall.
Researchers predict that some 10 million people by 2050 will die from infections from the growing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. About 35,000 people die annually from this, according to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CU Boulder noted in a report on Detweiler’s research that countless others suffer “life-threatening bouts” of illnesses such as strep throat and pneumonia.
“Bacteria are increasingly becoming resistant to the antibiotics that are currently available,” according to the paper on Detweiler’s research published in PLOS Pathogens. “It has even been predicted that in the next 30 years there will be more deaths from antibiotic resistant infections than from cancer.”
While the discovery of JD1 doesn’t magically solve the problem, Detweiler said “the theoretical approach is super-promising.” She said scientists have discovered other compounds that behave similarly. The research will continue to determine how those compounds work and whether any could one day be used as antibiotics.
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